Doffcocker: Coppicing Osier

Coppicing at Doffcocker Lodge, 29th January 2023

Doffcocker Lodge Local Nature Reserve, was Bolton’s first, and for many years only LNR. The lodge was originally built to supply water for Bolton’s industry and made use of the site’s elevation and plentiful water supply from the numerous springs and streams running into the valley. Today it is a haven for bird life including kingfisher, reed bunting, willow tit, and an occasional stop over for bittern.

Our task today was harvesting osier stems from one of the 3 compartments on the northern shore. The compartments were originally created to prevent Canada geese from damaging the vegetation along the shoreline, leading to erosion and loss of habitat. This has allowed willow to grow and in doing so stabilises the soil and create habitat, but it needs to be managed. The last time we did this was in December 2020, before that it was 2015.

December 2015

Coppicing is an age old woodland management technique that exploits our native trees’ ability to regrow after being damaged. Cutting these trees back causes them to regrow new shoots and stems which can then harvested for firewood, charcoal making, or craft materials. In this case we’re coppicing osier to for use in hurdle weaving projects at local schools. All of the willow that was cut will regrow and in doing so create habitat for birds and invertebrates. It is a highly sustainable method of woodland management and causes no harm to the trees used for harvesting.

Incidentally, Doffcocker is derived from the site’s Celtic name meaning The Black Winding Stream. I bet you really wanted to know that, so now some photos.

Moses Gate: Halloween

Sunday 30th November, Tree Planting

Concerned stakeholder

Professor Van Helsing sat in the semi-gloom of his mansion, quietly savouring a flagon from the cask of Amontillado he kept in his private cellar. While sharpening his one remaining stake he suddenly became aware of a strange noise coming from the kitchen wing, “Hmm,” he thought, “The servant’s locked away in his shuttered room, what can this be?” He rose and, cautiously, made his way to the location of the disturbance.
It was coming from behind the door to the larder.
Grasping the door’s handle, he readied himself, stake in hand, then pulled open the door to find.. nothing.
He realised with horror that the cupboard was bare and that he was going to have to go shopping.

Grabbing his Burberry coat and his pointy stick he exited the safety of his home and stepped out on to the dark, rain slicked streets of Murderside. He walked along Grimm Street, footsteps echoing as he passed beneath the flickering gas light. Coming to the last house on the left he turned down the Rue Morgue, a road well known for knife wielding primates and undead drag artists. The street was entirely dark, he suspected Council cutbacks and carried on stake in hand.

Suddenly three dark shapes, like women in black (although they may self-identify differently) detached themselves from the shadows and flew at him. Vampires! He had one stake and there were three of the creatures. He acted quickly. As two of the undead closed on him he deftly impaled them both with one stake, for the third he whipped out his pruning saw and de-limbed it shouting, “Timber.” As their dust drifted away, he muttered too himself, “While there’s a moon over Bourbon Street they will not gain victory.”

Returning home after his adventure and a nut cutlet, he realised he would need more stakes. He would have to use dark magic and invoke the Bolton Conservation Volunteers for help. He knew the dangers, knew the cost, knew what price they would ask. But it had to be done.

Taking down a long forgotten tome of Druidic lore he spoke the sacred words, “From the land beyond Bol-ton, from the world past hope and beer, I bid you BCV now appear.” He splashed the carpet with a small amount of ancient Super Seven ale and stood back. Slowly a mist rose from the age worn carpet, like stale smoke drifting musty and cold, the shapes began to take form, solidifying into the ghoulish group of hideous misfits that was BCV.
“I need you all to plant some trees that I can cut down later on and turn into stakes,” said Van Helsing.
“You have Jaffa Cakes?” asked one with spiders in her hair.
“No, not until you’re done. We need to go now, I don’t want to be late. And you can’t stay til morning, there’s no room.”

As they set off, travelling through the night to Mouldy Gate Park like a circus of horrors. As dawn broke the Professor laid out his plan.
“We’re not building a cabin in the woods, we’re planting bare rooted trees and sticking willow stems into the ground. I need enough stakes for an army of the damned to make war on the evil dead.”
“You have Jaffa Cakes?” asked a green haired freak.
“No,” said the patient Professor. “But, carry out my wishes and you’ll have more cakes than you can eat.”
“Jaffa Cakes?” asked three of the witches in unison.
Not wanting a witches strike on his hands, Van Helsing replied, “Maybe.”
With the repeated chant of “Jaffa Cake,” the zombieland rejects got to work.

Hangin' around

Under the gaze of an old tree they worked. Swinging their spades like pendulums they pit planted trees with names that cannot be spoken, and T planting others in defiance of Mouldy Gate’s resident evil. Willow stems were impaled into the dank earth where their roots would sprout and push through the soil like undead rabbits in a pet sematary (blame Steven King for the spelling). Tree after tree after tree found its final destination, and Van Helsing watched on as the work progressed. Gradually the light began to fail, but just in time the work was done; the long day of the dead (tired) had came to an end; a new woodland had been created, and a new store of future stakes to fight the fanged menace.

The shuffling mob shuffled and groaned, mostly about their backs. One, slowly stepped forward and lifted a hand, not one of her own but it would do, “Jaffa cake?” she croaked.
The Professor stepped back slowly. “Errm… I’ve got Double Death By Chocolate Cake and a Victoria Sandwich…”
“JAFFA CAKE!!!!” the mob screamed and shambled forward.
“Time for the pub,” uttered Van Helsing and turned to run, but his Burberry coat snagged on a branch of the wicked old tree and the hoard fell on him in their hunger.

The following morning. The sun rose on a peaceful wood. The pale dawn light slanted through the misty air, sparkling on golden, dew covered leaves. Deer wandered between the newly planted saplings, they sniffed at the young trees but left them be, this crop was not for eating. Turning, they quietly walked away leaving not a mark on the earth to show that they were ever there. As they padded gently by they passed beneath a raven perched in the branches of a gnarled old tree…
..and Van Helsing’s empty coat swinging in the breeze.

And the raven said, “Nevermore.”

Respectfully dedicated to BCV’s Van Helsing

All characters in this post are ‘entirely’ imaginary and any similarity between them and any persons living or undead is entirely ‘co-incidental’. No zombies or vampires were injured and Van Helsing eventually got his coat back. Many thanks to Banana Enterprises and the Rock Hall Volunteers for their involvement and to BCV’s cast of thousands for dressing up for the occasion. As usual thanks to Rick, Tom, and Caroline for their continued and outstanding leadership. Extra thanks to Jane, Sheena, and Lynn for cakes. Other work included cutting up old tree branches and making a dead hedge.

Dunscar Woods: Trees A Crowd

16th October 2022 – Tree thinning, Dunscar Woods, Egerton

A walk in the woods
A walk in the woods

Dunscar Wood is a new woodland near Egerton, Bolton. The wood occupies 5.7 hectares of what was formerly green fields which were bought by the Woodland Trust in 1998 as part of their millennial Woodlands on Your Doorstep project. Old maps do show a small patch of woods in the area but not of any great size or significance.

The Dunscar Wood Management plan says that in 1999 wood was planted with a mix of sessile oak, ash, birch, cherry, rowan, aspen, holly, alder, hawthorn, blackthorn and goat willow. Mature sycamore is also present and is thought to be a remnant of previous field boundaries.

Pedunculate Oak
Pedunculate Oak

New woodlands such as this are often planted quite densely with new stock, with 2 to 3 metres between each tree. Although there is always some loss through animal grazing, disease such as ash die back, and climate and weather conditions, the trees take up more room as they grow and need to be thinned out. Which is what we were doing on this task.

The Woodland Trust is thinning trees, not just to reduce the numbers, but to improve the structure of the woodland as part of the management plan for the site. One of the problems of planting lots of trees at once is the lack of age structure, hence the mix of long lived trees such as oak and short life-spanned species such as birch. The Woodland Trust envisages that over the next 80 years the short lived species will die off and provide standing deadwood and fallen logs which will benefit a range of bird and invertebrate species improving biodiversity in an area of Bolton with limited tree cover and species mix. Natural regeneration should make the new woodland self sustaining; gaps in the canopy should encourage the growth of woodland understorey.

The day before the task many of the larger trees that had been marked for felling were taken down by chainsaw, leaving Sunday’s group the task of cutting up and making into habitat piles and log stacks. The day was also a good opertunity to train some of the younger members how to fell trees safely and correct tool use.

Thanks to the Woodland Trust for letting us work here, Tom, Caroline, and Rick for putting it together, and the 21 (or so) volunteers for coming out. More woodland task write ups can be found under the Woodland category.

Rivington: Old King Charcoal

Sunday 31st July 2022 – Charcoal Making

Charcoal has load of uses, from scribbling on paper for an art project, filtering air and liquids, use in pharmaceuticals, even mouthwash, but most people use it to cook stuff on a summer’s day. For 30,000 years charcoal has been used as fuel for cooking. 3000 years ago it was used for smelting metals and glass making; it powered the early years of the industrial revolution until being replaced by coke, which is made from coal but using the same processes as this used to make charcoal. The fuel for charcoal came from coppices, woodland that could be sustainably harvested repeatedly over decades of centuries, but as coal and coke became the preferred fuel charcoal making declined. As charcoal making declined coppice management declined, continuing until more recent times when the value of a coppice to wildlife and conservation was recognised.

Charcoal is made through the magic of smothered combustion. A kiln, there are many kinds, is stacked with wood and then set on fire. At a critical point the kiln is sealed to prevent oxygen getting into the combustion process, hence being smothered. The heat cause the release of volatile gases from the woody fuel maintaining the process. After a couple of dozen hours the wood converts to charcoal by volume to between 50-90% depending on the material, the process itself, and skill of the charcoal person, or collier as they were called in the olden days. The more dense the wood the higher the quality of charcoal.

As mentioned, today charcoal is mostly something people see in their barbecue grill, this has created an industry that has and often still uses wood from illegal logging operations in rainforests across the world putting the survival of endangered species such as the mountain gorilla at risk. The extract below is from Wikipedia’s entry on charcoal which you can find here .

“Recent assessments of charcoal imported to Europe have shown that many charcoal products are produced from tropical wood, often of undeclared origin. In an analysis of barbecue charcoal marketed in Germany, the World Wildlife Fund finds that most products contain tropical wood. As a notable exception, reference is made to barbecue charcoal imports from Namibia, where charcoal is typically produced from surplus biomass resulting from bush encroachment.”

Liam the charcoal king

So, if you’re buying charcoal make sure it’s from a sustainable source, and preferably produced locally so as to reduce its carbon footprint. Carting burnt wood thousands of miles just to burn your sausage is a bit extreme and not good for the planet.

However, the charcoal we made on today’s adventure in the woods came from coppicing and woodland management operations at Rivington Terraced Gardens. Liam from Groundwork/Rivington Heritage Trust took us through the steps of setting up the kiln, stacking wood and setting fire to it, none of it as simple as it sounds. Once the fire was well away the kiln was sealed and the magic happened. Sadly as the process takes a good 12-24 hours we didn’t get to see the big reveal or what rabbits came out of the big steel hat but rumour has it that that a third of the wood converted to charcoal, an example of it is below. Many thanks to Jane’s Dad for the piccy.

Rivington charcoal
Rivington charcoal

Thanks to Liam and his team for a brilliant afternoon, and the excellent barbecue, and to Jane for organising. Double sooty thumbs up to all concerned.

Walker Fold & Dunscar: A Tale of Two Woods

February 13th and 20th 2022

It was the wettest of times; it was the wildest of times. Walker Fold Wood is part of the Woodland Trust’s Smithills Estate, and also part of the newly planted and expanding Northern Forest; Dunscar Wood is a Millennium woodland planted 20 years ago and growing towards maturity. I’ve combined the two tasks together because they tell a story of woodland management from new plantings to first thinnings, and also because I’m lazy and don’t want to write two posts covering largely the same subject.

So, Walker Fold. Walker Fold is an existing woodland consisting mostly of conifers, which doesn’t interest us very much because coniferous plantations have very little wild life value. The land nearby, however, has recently been planted with thousands of broadleaf saplings which are much more interesting and will provide plenty of habitat for wild animals, help with flood prevention, and help with soaking up carbon…. somewhat.

Our section grass was on a hillside near the corner of Walker Fold Road leading up to Colliers Row. On the day of planting heavy rain had made the area extremely wet, so wet that every time we dug a tree pit it would instantly fill will with water, this isn’t good, but there were a few less saturated spots that we manage to plant in. We planted spindle, way-faring tree, crab apple, and hawthorn the first three are less well known and don’t usually make it on to the top ten list of things we usually plant so well done to Roberta at the WT for doing something different. How many will survive is another matter.

This brings us to an interesting point about tree planting. In recent years large companies have bigged up their green credentials by paying for trees to be planted in order to offset their carbon footprint. Claims such as ‘We have planted 100,000 trees,’ sound really good, but if you plant 100,000 trees not all will make it to maturity. At one time a 10% survival rate was considered normal. Soil conditions, frost, disease, grazing by deer, root nibbling by shrews, and even the types of trees planted on a given site can contribute towards tree survival. Changes in planting methodologies, such as using tree shelters, have improved trees’ survival rates. Some studies indicate 30-40% of trees don’t survive to their 5th year, but this is complicated by which mix of trees are planted with some trees being more prone to failure than others. But there is another part of the woodland creation process that also accounts tree loss.

At Dunscar Wood the trees that were planted 20 years ago are now sturdy young trees with a bright future, but there’s just too many of them. The strategy of saturating and area with trees 2 metres apart is sound and sensible ensuring that you get the highest uptake possible, but 2 metres is not much room for a growing tree so thinning has to take place to cull the herd. Trees are preferably selected to remove any that are diseased or stunted, but sometimes healthy trees have to be felled just to make room for the survivors. There are some very complex formulas for selecting trees to take out, most are aimed at commercial forestry and maximising the revenue from a timber crop. Generally the first thinnings will remove 10% with more being removed with each round of thinning. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that between planting and maturity an area could lose 50% of its trees. Thinning is what we were doing at Dunscar Wood on a wet and windy Sunday. Taking down healthy trees can be really disheartening but you have to look at the bigger picture which is the long term sustainability of a woodland.

Trees take up carbon but only hold it out of the carbon cycle until the fall over and decompose, many climate scientists have pointed out that the value of tree planting for carbon capture has been overstated and the best way to reduce atmospheric carbon is not to put it there in the first place. The short version is don’t always believe the green hype made by billionaires.

However, planting trees will always be otherwise a good thing and trees have other important functions which make tree planting important: they provide habitat for wild life and consequently improve biodiversity, they hold soil in place with networks of root systems which help lessen the severity of flood events, and the also give conservationists something to do. So, planting trees is a far better thing to do to the landscape than has ever been done before, and it will be a far better future we will have than the one we have left behind. (Apologies to Charlie D for mangling his prose.. and his name.)

Many thanks to the Woodland Trust for letting us work on their two sites.

Chew Moor: Field of Screams

October 31st 2021

Autumn Crocus
Autumn Crocus

Chew Moor, Lostock, a Site of Biological Importance, the importance being the autumn crocus that sprout up in September and October. The story is that the Knights Hospitallers brought them back from the Crusades, it was believed that they were effective against the Black Death but they were also more valuable than gold because of saffron. To prevent the valuable saffron being stolen the Knights laid a curse on the flowers, binding the spirit of one of their own to the meadow for all eternity. The ritual used to do this was gruesome and hideous and unbreakable, it is said, that on grim days his tall hooded shade can be seen walking the perimeter of the meadow in the exact areas where the crocus grows.

As BCV arrived on a cold October day the pale knight was already making his presence felt; punctured tyres, flat batteries, and sudden illnesses plagued the volunteers. Strange ghostly faces peered from the undergrowth as workers tried to cut back branches from the path, evil screams emanated from deep amongst the trees, and gloves would mysteriously go missing.

The volunteers tried to appease the vengeful spirit with cake and tea, and explained that the work was to help the meadow not damage it, cutting back the hedge and the trees would help improve habitat for birds and also help the flowers. The spook gave a hollow laugh and possessed a couple of our party to help speed the work along. He also made another one of the group so obsessed with the long handled pruning saw that we had to leave bits of him behind buried by the path.

All in all a typical BCV task.

If you want to see more creepiness go to Hallween Hall of Horrors.